Jogging in Japan

IT'S another scorching day in Kyoto - so hot I don't need an alarm clock. By 6 a.m. the sun is streaming through the shoji - sliding doors of opaque glass - filling my small room with sunshine, spilling onto my bed on the floor. Quickly I dress for my morning jog along the river. As an American living and working in this fast-paced country, I value this time to be alone with my thoughts and the peaceful surroundings. Keeps my soul toned, and my body trim for modeling assignments.

Since it hasn't rained for days, the river is calm. The air is clean and only early-morning humid. It smells of little fish and tall trees. Rhythmically the gravel scrunches beneath my feet. All is quiet except for the few cars and Japanese-sized trucks on their way to work.

I jog past a couple of elderly gentlemen - one in a white sweat suit, being towed briskly by his dog, another in a traditional robe of dark brown linen, moving slowly, bent over his knobby walking stick. After the second bridge I pass the old man who does tai chi - Chinese exercise, a sort of slow kung fu - every morning on the riverbank. His slow, controlled movements remind me of early mornings in China - my home before Japan - where old people rise at dawn to stretch their limbs and soothe their minds before the day's work begins. I feel a kinship with folks who share the secrets of morning serenity.

A few fishermen dot the riverbank; the rhythm of the gravel is broken as I leap over scattered bamboo fishing poles and rusty pails. The sun is hot on my back as I continue along the river's path. Only the tsuru - white cranes - have commenced communal activity, but quietly. They soar. They wade. They dive for fish. Even the pigeons are listless in this heat, except when they waddle aside to let me pass.

AT the northern tip of my loop I am in the country, surrounded by rice and vegetable fields. On spring and fall mornings, when I run later, I see groups of schoolchildren - in uniforms, caps, and knapsacks - playing on their way to school. They stare and giggle awkwardly when I run by; if I speak to them they laugh and run for cover. But this morning it's too early to see them.

Now I come to my favorite spot: the horse barn. I jog across the road, into the barn, and greet the horses - in Japanese. Would they understand English? I inhale deeply, eyes closed; for a moment I am back home in my father's horse barn. Summer is my favorite time on the farm in Michigan, but I haven't been there for two years.

Second half of the loop, sun in my face.

``Ohayo gozaimasu,'' pants a familiar voice. She smiles - we're friends without names - and nods her visor. Maybe she's a housewife - as most women are - who returns home to prepare her husband for work and her children for school. Yet she is an unusual sight - a middle-aged woman jogging alone every morning, rain or shine (and at a faster clip than I!). I wonder why she jogs so diligently. Is it to keep fit?

A thin breeze rustles the grass along the path. The old women who tend the riverbank are ready to start working. Chattering, they assemble, carrying trowels, rakes, and towels. They're dressed in traditional blue cotton pants and little jackets, with white hand towels resting on the tops of their heads. A funny sight, I think. But perhaps they find my wide-soled shoes, sweat-soaked tank top, and punky sunglasses just as silly. Whatever, we always exchange greetings - bows and smiles - as I jog by.

It's hot, and my 10 kilometers are finished. Stopping by a place with easy access to the river, I look around to make sure no one is watching, take off my shoes and socks, and wade to my knees in the icy river. Ah, heaven.

On the way back to my room, I stop by the neighbor's abundant flower bed for a whiff of some new blossoms. The flowers come and go so quickly in the summer. The earth feels cold under my feet, but I must be careful that no one sees my delight; the Japanese do not approve of bare feet outdoors.

By now my room smells of tatami - the straw matting used for floors in traditional Japanese homes. The smell reminds me of summer haymows back home. But here we live, work, and sleep on the plant. I'm glad the mats in my room are still fresh.

I turn on the floor fan and begin my morning chores: fold the sheets, hang the futon, or cotton mattress, on the railing outside my window, vacuum the floor, dust the table in my room, and turn on the TV for my morning French lesson in Japanese.

I wander outside and bring in laundry from my little clothesline. Already my landlady is in the garden pulling weeds from around the rocks. I think that's her serenity before the day. When she sees me watching, she smiles, stands to straighten her apron, and giggles with her hand covering her mouth. ``Ohayo gozaimasu, Riza-san,'' she says with a bowing nod.

``Ohayo gozaimasu, Ueda-san,'' I return, with a quick bow. We talk about the weather and the garden - all in Japanese. How I wish I could talk about more personal things - ask her what it's like to be a single woman raising teen-age sons in modern Japan, or what she thinks about when she's pulling weeds. Sometimes when I see her watching TV by herself or sitting alone at the kitchen table, she seems lonely. This morning she looks happy.

Towel and toiletries container in hand, I walk across the garden to her house, where I use the ofuro - Japanese bath. I stop to look at the koi - big carp, once I heard one speak - when splash! the frog jumps in. Happens every morning.

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